Saturday, June 25, 2011

Using DNA in nonviolent offenses would swamp crime labs

In the future, as the national CODIS database expands to include, conceivably, every US arrestee, DNA will be used to solve all sorts of common crimes, not just violent offenses. It can be used for nonviolent crimes now, in fact, but the main barrier to doing so is a lack of resources at crime labs. In Northwestern Louisiana, federal grants are being used to process DNA in burglaries in a pilot program, reports the Shreveport Times.
The effort to clear a backlog of burglary cases started in March. The crime lab was staffed with eight new full-time DNA analysts and the will to go after a stack of property crimes cases, crime lab Director Jimmy Barnhill said.

The crime lab has tested DNA from 76 cases this year — 70 burglaries, five sexual assaults and one classified as "other."

Of those 76 cases, 78.5 percent came back with DNA matching someone in the Combined DNA Index System maintained by the state, crime lab forensic DNA analyst Jessica Esparza said.

Burglaries had an 84 percent hit rate against CDIS, meaning 84 percent of the time an unknown burglary suspect will be named by the system, Esparza said. She said 59 percent of the total 2011 hits came from the Shreveport Police Department and 6 percent came from the Bossier City Police Department.
As new techniques come online like "touch DNA" that let investigators discover biological evidence in settings heretofore considered clean, the possible forensic uses for such technology will continue to grow faster than will the number of techs employed by the state to process the evidence, and much faster than city and county budgets to pay for local or private processing. There are opportunities for privatization here, but private labs doing this work also face greater responsibility to back it up in the courts than ever before when their work is used later on.

Either way, ramping up lab volumes while doing the work the right way, in a manner that will survive appellate and regulatory scrutiny, is one of the major challenges facing modern crime labs. They could begin processing DNA in more burglary cases, but as it stands, doing so requires a tradeoff with, say, reducing rape-kit backlogs. Short of some special, federally funded pilot program like in Shreveport, I doubt most law enforcement agencies would choose of their own accord to prioritize DNA testing resources on nonviolent offenses while untested rape kits linger on their storage shelves.

The 82nd Texas Legislature passed a bill this year that will require the creation of statewide rules at DPS governing collection and preservation of biological evidence. That's pretty much where the rubber meets the road on whether local labs and evidence handlers can competently manage the ever-growing volume of biological evidence coming their way. If it needn't be properly stored, cataloged, etc., they can probably go along to get along. If the evidence must be managed using high professional standards, the cost of expanding DNA testing to new domains may be, as a general rule, too prohibitive. At a minimum that tension will be explored more thoroughly as those rules are developed, both at DPS and perhaps on this blog.

RELATED: From Forbes, "Is DNA testing of dog poop forensic science gone too far?"

See related Grits posts


Hook Em Horns said...

Good post Grits!

Anonymous said...

Grits, one of the most corrupt policing agencies in the country along with one of the most corrupt DA's office recently tried a case where DNA testing had been used on a tiny zip-lock bag containing cocaine residue that was found inside a hotel room. I can almost see the shock on your face now, but I'll prove it by submitting a link to the story in an online newspaper.

About a week earlier, the defendant had lost an election for a nearby City Council seat after running on a platform that called for a 50 percent reduction in the police department’s budget.

Galveston has long been known as the crown of corruption in the south, and it's not likely to change anytime soon unless the US Justice Department were to intervene.

Audrey said...

Seems like there shouldn't have to be a trade-off. If we are so set on expending the dollars to convict and imprison people, then a priority in terms of funds ought to be in ACCURATE forensic testing, not just DNA but all forensics. To hear a judge say forensics are just not in her budget is beyond belief. They'd rather pay the cost of imprisoning yet another person for years? How is that good money management?

I suppose one could argue that the judge's budget is not the same funds as those paying for the prison cost, which is most likely true. BUT when you have such a BIG system one (the taxpayers) must step back and look at the whole picture. Because ultimately all costs leading to wrongful convictions are coming from the same pocket...your's and mine as taxpayers, rather its allocated to a county judge or TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

Wolfpacking,wilding and flash mobs are the thing these days. Now we have violent mobs breaking out in many cities all over the country. When a mob of 40 runs into your store, they believe they are safe from prosecution, and they are. The no snitching code is enforced in these mobs. Safety in number, they think. They believe they can act and not have to pay for it.

Audrey said...

Wouldn't there be DNA with the wolf-mobs? Wouldn't there be videos? How do large groups get to a place? Isn't there something to follow? I don't see how they can stay protected?